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Business Officer Magazine
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Can Student Media and Campus Administration Co-exist?

Budding journalists, along with communication and higher education professionals, gathered in Las Vegas recently at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They hoped to answer some vital questions. One in particular echoes within the walls of college and university campuses: Can administrators and student publication leaders co-exist?

The answer: Of course, they can. An NABJ panel of journalism professionals agreed, however, that the relationship between an institution’s administration and its student media can oftentimes prove tumultuous.

The panel—including Valerie White, assistant journalism professor, Florida A&M University, Tallahassee; Talia Buford, reporter, The Providence Journal, Rhode Island; Ruth Tisdale, reporter, The Roanoke Times, Virginia; and Nia Hightower, senior editor, Business Officer magazine—spoke to a group of student journalists and campus media advisers about the importance of effective interaction between the two entities.

Hightower noted that some administrators view student media as public relations tools rather than as objective media. “It can be a mistake to censor student journalists or tell them what to write,” she said. “That action often brings more attention to the issue being written about.”   

Just ask Talia Buford. Before becoming a reporter for The Providence Journal, the Hampton University alumna served as editor-in-chief of the Hampton Script in 2003. That was the year in which the publication was confiscated and eventually burned by school administrators. The university took action against the paper after students printed an article about health code violations in the campus cafeteria. Buford said that when negotiations with the school were concluded, the newspaper article was eventually reprinted, and the paper was given editorial independence.

Advisers Play a Tough Role

Although students are often the ones in the spotlight during such standoffs, the role of the campus media adviser shouldn’t be taken lightly. In fact, the Student Press Law Center’s Web site refers to the position as “the toughest job in school.”

“Advisers exist in limbo,” explains SPLC, “between serving the student journalists and working for the university. [They] often find themselves in legal limbo as well, with ill-defined and amorphous legal concepts circumscribing their rights and responsibilities.”

Valerie White, who serves as a student media adviser, said there is often ignorance about the role of the press on campuses. She said advisers are obligated to fight for their students’ rights to print accurate and informative material.

That stance can come at a price for the adviser and for the institution. This summer, for example, Ocean County College, Toms River, New Jersey, settled a lawsuit calling for the college to pay its reinstated newspaper adviser $90,000 and return her to teaching classes. The adviser filed suit after the institution took away her journalism classes and refused to renew her contract as adviser in 2005. She claimed that one of the reasons she was fired stemmed from allowing the student newspaper to publish stories critical of the university’s president.

Students Also Bear Responsibility

Advisers may be on the frontlines, but the responsibility for navigating the relationship between campus media and the administration does not rest solely on the shoulders of campus officials and advisers. Students must make it their mission to report accurate news to readers, and it helps when student writers have access to administrators for interviews and confirmation of information.

Ruth Tisdale, who served as editor-in-chief at Howard University’s The Hilltop from 2004 to 2006, said students sometimes have the urge to rebel against the college administration. They need to strive for better balance, she said.

White, board chair of the Black College Communication Association, added that BCCA has made some strides in approaching institution leaders to raise awareness of the issues surrounding student media censorship. White said that moving the process forward will be far from immediate, but she is hopeful of positive outcomes.

For more information about the Student Press Law Center, visit www.splc.org. To learn more about the Black College Communication Association, go to www.bccanews.org.